Probably the most unexpected, but also the most pleasant characteristic of the gerbil is its intense curiosity. Almost meddlesome, because it literally sticks its nose into everything. The gerbil will not run away and hide when there are sudden noises or movements. On the contrary, it is attracted by new sounds or things, and will first investigate, before he decides if there could be any danger. Because of this, the animals donít get excited that easily, and thus donít bite often.
The gerbil signals its excitement or anger by thumping with its hind feet. When the gerbil does this, it stands up straight and thumps, very quickly, on the ground. One of the functions of this thumping is warning other family members of danger. This thumping is a signal to flee or to attack.
Young gerbils learn this behaviour from their parents. Also in the mating ritual, the thumping plays a big role. The ways of thumping are different, depending on what the gerbil wants to make clear it can vary in loudness and tempo. For instance, the thumping during the mating ritual is more quick, but also more silent than the thumping that means danger.
Besides the thumping, gerbils also communicate through high squeaking sounds, we can hardly hear. Very young gerbils squeak a bit louder, to me this is often a sign that new animals are born. Older animals use this louder squeaking only when they are afraid, playing or sexually excited.
Gerbils are born to dig! That is their favourite past time. In captivity they sometimes dig the corners of their tank constantly, this is called stereotypic behaviour. You can read more about this when you click here.
!Another important thing you have to think of if you want to keep a gerbil is that you should not keep a single gerbil!
A lonely gerbil is very unhappy, we humans can not provide a gerbil with that amount of attention it needs. A gerbil not only wants a mate to play with, but it also needs a partner to cuddle up with when you go to sleep, or to groom and to be groomed by. A lonely gerbil can be very insecure, and sometimes they even bite, which is very unusual for a gerbil to do. But adult gerbils (older than 10-12 weeks) are also very territorial, and won't just accept a stranger. So if you want to introduce adult gerbils, be very carefull! There are some tips on how to do this on the Gerbil FAQ. or here
Body language is the most important way for gerbils to communicate . Next, I want to give a summary of the body language of gerbils.
photo by Joy Wu & Spring Lin from Taiwan
It seems like the gerbils are kissing; they lick each others mouth, they recognize each other through the taste of their saliva.
Happy or peaceful
They wash themselves, their face, belly and back, they wash their tail by holding it with their front feet.
The animals jump, with all four feet, in the air. Sometimes two animals are boxing with their front feet. This boxing can be a game, but can also be very serious.
The gerbil sits straight up, as frozen, with its front paws together like it is praying.
As in fear, but the gerbil looks relaxed, it snuffles in the air, with trembling whiskers, and moves his head back and forth.
Invitation to be groomed
The gerbil rolls on its back, in front of an other animal, offering his throat. The other gerbil can rarely resist such a gesture, and will groom its partner.
I want to be left alone
The irritated gerbil will push another gerbil (or your hand) away with its head.
Ready to fight
When gerbils are ready to fight, they will push each other with their heads, and then start a real box and wrestling match.
You can read more about gerbil behaviour here.
There is a list of scientific papers, including abstracts on gerbil behaviour on the NGS pages.